I had begun writing about other things these past few weeks. I was writing an essay about my grandmother, whom I love deeply, and whose eyes are beginning to fail her. I was writing about how she loved Anna Karenina and used to read it to her own grandmother, who was blind. I had also started writing about another client of mine, who suffered, not unlike Henry, from addiction and depression and various other afflictions. But I recently started a new semester of school and a new internship and was having trouble finishing everything. The words were just not coming together easily; the prose felt disjointed and lacked something, some cohesion.
I was not at work yesterday, but I got a text message from my supervisor requesting that I call her. She asked me if I had time to talk and then she told me that Henry had died. He had passed away the evening before; according to the coroners, at about 7 p.m.
Henry had died.
It seemed impossible and yet, of course. Of course this was the fear I harbored every day, all the time, when working with people who were constantly struggling, at odds against the merciless pull of addiction and mental illness. In some cases it seemed amazing that they were able to survive this long at all, after decades of passing out in alleyways, years of listening to voices that commanded them to stay outside or to hurt themselves.
This is the latent fear all the time, but mostly these fears aren’t realized. Usually the cycles of drug abuse and mania and depression come and go, and often our clients move on (slowly, but they do) into their own homes and we are there to support them through the process. We load up the vans with their stereos and duffel bags, filled with remnants of their past lives, sneakers and books, a few remaining photographs and a handful of bottles of medication. But sometimes they do die; their hearts succumb to the years of crack use, or they slip on a flight of stairs, or they take their own lives.
It happens. We talk about it at work and we mourn it. But I am having a little more trouble this time. We treat all of our clients the same — we afford them the same opportunities and we work diligently to get each of them treatment and housing, but undoubtedly we connect to some more deeply than others. There is transference and counter-transference. We see things in our clients that reflect our fathers or our brothers or our boyfriends. In Henry I saw so much. He was past fifty but I saw decades laid out in front of him. I envisioned a peaceful old age, with his children and the wife he loved, whom he wanted to take care of, but knew he was failing.
In the last couple of months there had been some decline and also lots of progress. Henry was hospitalized for a couple of weeks upstate. It was a hard time but he was using it well. He was reflecting a lot. He received a new diagnosis that, after fifty years, finally felt right. It explained a lot of his behavior, he said, and it was starting to make sense. He said he hadn’t understood how much his drug use was affecting his mental health. Of course he was using to cope, to self-medicate, as they say. Of course, but it was all clicking now. He seemed refreshed and rejuvenated.
I visited Henry in the hospital, which looked like a small college, with lovely stone buildings and a sprawling, manicured lawn. When I got there, he took me to the patient lounge where some of the arts and crafts he made were displayed on the walls.
He shrugged his shoulders. So this is what we do, he said. But he didn’t seem ashamed. He had taken a game of Scrabble and used all of the tiles to make a computer keyboard. He glued the letters onto a piece of cardboard, and camouflaged within the regular QWERTY keyboard format he had hidden his favorite musicians. Zepplin, it said on the bottom, Zappa on top left. He loved music and had an almost encyclopedic knowledge of it.
A week later I picked Henry up at the hospital and drove him back to the place where he was temporarily living. He spent an hour telling me his plans for the next month or so, until he would finally have his own apartment. He would take classes at the technical school downtown, he would keep going to the library, keep learning about computers and cars, the mazes of their engines, the technology that kept on changing. But he would die just a few weeks later, ultimately losing a battle he had been struggling with for most of his life.
It was cold and cloudy as we drove south along the West Side Highway. We passed by the Hudson – the river was gleaming and choppy beside us. Henry started talking about his father, how he had loved to go sailing with him as a child and teenager. And I thought about the times earlier that year when Henry had jumped into lakes and rivers and tried to swim across them, only to be hospitalized against his will. Of course it wasn’t that simple, but I thought of him reaching out, trying desperately to find some connection to his beloved father. And wasn’t he always just trying to find something to anchor him?